To understand the difference between distros, maybe you should look again at what a distro is.
What's a distro?
You probably know all this, but think about it again. Linux is just a kernel. In most cases, that's completely useless by itself. Most of what it does is simply providing a software interface to the hardware on your machine so that other programs can use it.
A distribution is much more complex than this. Take into account:
- A choice of applications and libraries specific to the use of the distribution.
- Tools to manage and maintain the system.
- Documentation and support channel.
- A release cycle and community management.
There are a lot of software layers added on top of Linux to create something like Ubuntu or Mint, with infinite possibilities of configurations and choices to make.
You should also take into account the nature of the editor of the distro. Projects like Red Hat, SuSE or Ubuntu serve the purpose of businesses while others like Mint, Debian or Gentoo are managed by volunteers.
What's the difference between one distro and another?
Virtually any application running on a distro is available (or easily portable) to another. After all, they are all very similar Unix systems. However, no matter what you do, you cannot change the release cycle of your distribution, the speed at which new versions are packaged, or simply the look and feel of their official forum. Maybe an example would show you better:
Let's say I am impatiently waiting for the new version of my software, for instance Python-3.3 which is due in a few days. How will it be available for different distros:
- Rolling release distros (like Arch Linux or Gentoo) will make it available quickly in their repositories. As soon as the maintainer packages it and basic tests are run, it's available.
- Enterprise distros will probably promise it for "upcoming versions". In the meanwhile it's still available but won't be in any official channel.
- Debian will not make it available before it's thoroughly tested, a process that can take years. However it makes the testing repository very easily available for the public. (For instance Ubuntu creates their versions out of this version repository every 6 months).
What's the real difference between Mint and Ubuntu?
For the record, I should point out that I haven't used Ubuntu for over 2 years and barely used Mint for a few months 4 years ago. What I'm saying here might not be very accurate.
The difference between Mint and Ubuntu is minimal, after all Mint is completely based on Ubuntu. Originally, Mint was simply a repackaging of Ubuntu with 3 differences:
- It provided proprietary technologies in their default install (something that Ubuntu doesn't).
- It provided a few graphical tools like the taskbar menu or the app installer that it patched on top of the basic Ubuntu install.
- It had a higher focus on aesthetics. Its slogan is still "From freedom came elegance".
A few years ago, the schism grew wider as Ubuntu tried to push the Unity graphical environment, Mint community made a big deal about rejecting it.
This is how Cinnamon came to be.
I have never tried it, but I wouldn't be surprised if someone makes Cinnamon run on Ubuntu and Unity on Mint. The argument I'm trying to make is:
Differences between distros like Mint and Ubuntu are much more about the community and the subtle choices than it is about the software itself.